HL Deb 23 June 1903 vol 124 cc246-50

, who had the following notice on the Paper, "To move that a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon the expediency or otherwise of limiting the discretion given to boards of guardians in dealing with members of friendly societies under the Out-door Relief (Friendly Societies) Act, 1894," said, my Lords, I shall be in the recollection of your Lordships in stating that when the Outdoor Relief (Friendly Societies) Bill came before your Lordships for Second Reading my desire was that it should be referred to a Select Committee. I entertained that desire mainly in the interests of the friendly societies, because the Bill, although supported unanimously I believe at great meetings of friendly societies, contained a clause which altered the power given to boards of guardians by the Act of 1894, in respect to the relief of members of friendly societies. This was a permissive power to consider the cases of persons who had made savings with friendly societies. The Bill then before your Lordships however, turned that permissive power into an absolute enactment that boards of guardians should not consider any amount up to 5s. that was receivable by members of friendly societies as sick pay when they applied for outdoor relief. I felt, and I think your Lordships felt, judging by the division which took place, that the case on behalf of the friendly societies was not made out to your Lordships' satisfaction; that there was no proof shown to us that the power given to boards of guardians by the Act of 1894 had not been exercised in favour of members of friendly societies; and my desire was to give to the friendly societies an opportunity of stating their case before a Select Committee of your Lordships, in order that when the question came up again there should be more material before the House for arriving at a decision. Since I put down my notice I have been given to understand that my noble and learned friend opposite, Lord James of Hereford, who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, and my noble friend behind me, the Earl of Portsmouth, who objects to my Motion for a Committee, would, even if your Lordships assented to the Committee, not be willing to serve on it. I have also reason to believe that the great friendly societies have arrived at the determination, supposing your Lordships were to consent to my Motion, to decline to give evidence before the Committee. I wish to ask the noble Earl behind me whether such is the fact.


When I received private notice of the Question I took the earliest opportunity of consulting the representatives of the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows, the Foresters, and other great friendly societies, and the representatives of those societies, which have in the aggregate a membership of over 4,000,000, have unanimously told me that they have no intention if any such Committee is formed to give any evidence before it. They have no desire to act discourteously, but they feel that this is a matter of principle on which they must decline to alter their views at all.


My Lords, I should like, after the answer which has been given by the noble Earl, to say a word upon this subject. I think it would be most unfortunate if there were any misunderstanding outside as to the grounds on which the Motion will now, I presume, be withdrawn. It is on the ground that the friendly societies decline to tell us on what reason they base their claim for exceptional treatment being accorded to this particular form of thrift. It is not accorded to other modes of saving within the friendly society itself, and it is not accorded to the deferred annuities which the Government itself through the Post Office advocates and guarantees. I and others are most anxious to support this Bill in principle, believing in every fair and reasonable encouragement to thrift, but the Bill says that distinct preferential treatment of the most marked kind shall, without any exercise of discretion, be given, not to friendly societies altogether, or to their thrift funds, but to one particular branch of the friendly societies work—namely, that which relates to sick pay as contrasted with pensions or anything else. I desire with all my heart to foster the friendly societies, entertaining as I do the strongest possible opinion as to the incalculable value of the service, they are rendering to the country, but it is their responsibility and not mine if they decline to give this House the opportunity we ask for when we claim that a Committee should be appointed, before whom evidence may be given to show us why these particular sick funds should be differentiated from every other form of thrift. They may be able to give us conclusive reasons; all that we ask is to be told what these are.


I share with the most rev. Primate the desire that there should be no misunderstanding outside. I am astonished at the position which the right rev. Primate takes up. The grounds of the claim have been stated over and over again, and in consequence of what was stated the House of Commons have unanimously given to the friendly societies special treatment. The Bill has been discussed in this House, and the reasons why friendly societies should be specially treated were stated by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh and myself—they were also stated in the other House, and yet the most rev. Prelate, after the Bill has been thoroughly discussed says, "I know nothing about it and the only way I can acquire knowledge is by a Committee."


I by no means say I know nothing about it. I have, I think, read every debate which has taken place on the subject, and all the pamphlets on both sides. What I fail to find is any adequate statement of the reasons for setting apart this particular mode of thrift and distinguishing it from all others.


Nobody has ever asked for this Committee until the present moment, and I think in the circumstances that the proposal is extremely discourteous to the House of Commons and to the friendly societies. Surely the reasons for the preference are to be stated in debate, and not proved by oral testimony. The facts are known, and they can be argued upon in debate.


I fail to see any discourtesy to the friendly societies in asking them to appear before a Committee and give evidence why this particular fund should receive differential and preferential treatment. I think that as the friendly societies refuse to give that evidence, the noble Earl is justified in refusing to go on with his Motion. In the circumstances, it would be only a one-sided inquiry, and that would be absolutely useless.


I want to make my position and that of the Government clear. While the Government accepted the decision of the House with regard to the Bill, they would not object to the Motion of the noble Earl if he proceeded with it.


I deeply regret that the great friendly societies should have thought it consistent with their interests to decline to give evidence before a Committee. The House is not actuated by any hostility to these societies; we recognise their excellent services to the community; but when the House considers that the information at their disposal with regard to a particular Bill is not sufficient to enable them to arrive at a conclusion with regard to it, they are entitled to ask for a Committee. But, in the circumstances, it would be futile for me to proceed with my Motion.

House adjourned at ten minutes before Eight o'clock, to Thursday next, half-past Ten o'clock.